In the early years of the twenty-first century, anti-globalisation activists descended by the thousands on major international summits and negotiations from the World Bank and the IMF to the World Economic Forum. Protesters representing interests ranging from Western labour unions to African farmers decried the unfairness of globalisation, claiming it exacerbated north-south divides. Today we know they were wrong, and so do they. That’s why the protests stopped.
The ‘anti’ movements – anti-capitalism, anti-technology, anti-globalisation – always lose. They represent not universalistic humanism but parochial shortsightedness. Too little trade is a much bigger problem than unfair trade, too little internet access is a much bigger problem than the digital divide, too little wealth creation is a much bigger problem than high inequality, and too few genetically modified crops is a much bigger problem than corporate farming. Decades of UN declarations calling for global economic redistribution would never have achieved what globalisation has in a few short decades. When Bill Gates said in 2014 that the “world is better than it’s ever been” we have globalisation to thank.
The future always comes faster than we expect. Our ancestors awoke not knowing the world is round. Today we wake up knowing we are connected to a global grid with only a few degrees of separation between any two people. There is no doubt that connectivity brings greater complexity and uncertainty, yet the places where one can be sure that tomorrow will be the same as today are often the places one would rather not be.
If the world population has a common goal, it is the quest for modernisation and connectivity – the latter a principal path to the former. Connectivity is unquestionably a greater force than all the political ideologies in the world combined. Deng Xiaoping, who managed to dismantle the Soviet-style communes of Mao’s Great Leap Forward and even opposed the Cultural Revolution, subsequently launched the reforms of the 1970s that connected China to the world economy and catapulted it from backwater to superpower. The same is true of religions. In most places, religion and the marketplace peacefully coexist. The religious revival among the newly minted middle-class Indians and Chinese has much to do with showing gratitude and praying for continued success in the global economy. Both societies know that without connectivity they would have much less to be grateful for.
Connectivity has become the foundation for global society. After all, individuals connect with the rest of the world not through politics but through markets and media. Supply chains literally embody how we (indirectly) feel about each other: low-wage Asian workers keep the price of mobile phones down for consumers worldwide, Al-Qaeda militants attacking a Saudi Arabian oil refinery spike gas prices for urban commuters, and Indian and Filipino call center workers solve everyone’s tech conundrums. Whatever the degrees of separation, supply chains connect the Bangladeshi garment worker to the Saks Fifth Avenue shopper, and the Congolese miner to the diamond-crusted Vertu phone customer in Hong Kong airport. Nothing connects rich and poor, East and West, North and South, like supply chains. Tenuous as these links may be, we are more likely to care about things we are connected to than those we are not. Pollution floating over the Pacific from China to California makes Americans think about climate change more than sinking Pacific Ocean islands. The collapse of a garment factory in Bangladesh making clothing for Western brands garners much more attention – and action – than a blaze at a Chinese fireworks plant with few sales outside China. Connectivity enables the empathy that guides our ethical evolution.
A supply chain order is thus not a libertarian fantasy in which markets rule the world. Nor is it universal socialist paradise. It is an evolutionary reality that we should construct pragmatic strategies to harness rather than retreat into populist mythologies and antiquated vocabularies. For nearly a century, the writings of Max Weber have inspired the belief that modern states will ultimately provide the best economic, social, and political foundations of order. But today more than five billion people are chronically under-served and neglected by their national governments.
Even in the West, where the geography of birth has conferred advantages over the rest of the world, a relatively privileged fate is no longer guaranteed. As European governments cut payrolls, millions of citizens have been left to fend for themselves, while America’s millennial generation may well fall below the income levels their parents achieved decades earlier. The future will be one of self-sufficiency rather than entitlement: there is no more right to be rich.
There is a false dichotomy between national societies as an organic ethical community versus what Harvard’s Michael Sandel calls a “market society” that neglects community bonds. Rather than waiting for governments to provide justice, dignity, and opportunity, people are forming new associations – professional, commercial, virtual – not as a substitute for local social capital, but as an essential new kind of global social capital.
Global connectedness is thus an opportunity to evolve both our cartography and our morality. We should make the most of supply chains rather than just letting them make the most of us. A world remapped according to connections rather than divisions holds the potential to advance a shift from ‘us-them’ mentalities toward a broader human ‘we’ identity. There is no good reason to turn back.
The touchstone of morality in a global society is leveraging connectedness for utilitarian ends: achieving the greatest good for the greatest number of people. We must apply John Rawls’s test of societal morality on a global scale, judging ourselves by how we treat those at the bottom and justifying inequality to the extent that it improves the lives of the poorest. There is still potential to turn what the economist Branko Milanovic calls ‘bad’ inequality into ‘good’ inequality, which motivates and enables efforts for achievement. We are, in fact, on the right track: globalisation and connectivity have improved the quality of life for billions of people even if they have also made high inequality inevitable.
The time has come for even bolder thinking about how to leverage near-total connectivity to advance large-scale human development. Infrastructures, markets, technologies, and supply chains are not only logistically uniting the world but also propelling us toward a fairer and sustainable future. But there is still a long way to go. Billions are still without roads and electricity; food is scarce; money is a luxury. Bad infrastructure and bad institutions stand in the way of bridging supply and demand. It is a moral imperative to overcome them.
There is no higher morality than allowing people to move to wherever they need to, whether to avert natural disasters, escape conflict, or search for work, and moving the world’s abundant resources of freshwater, food, and energy to the people who need them.
National sovereignty and territorial integrity are no longer sacrosanct principles; in fact, they can be highly immoral when populations are besieged in Sudan and Syria, when drought-stricken climate refugees aren’t relocated to fertile territories, or when migrant workers are trapped in political purgatories rather than empowered to contribute and earn. The shift from political to functional maps helps us overcome rigid moralities that deliver neither justice nor efficiency and adopt a more utilitarian mentality by which governments don’t so much own the world as manage parts of it within a global network civilisation.
The cost of building this new planetary order runs into the hundreds of trillions, and so do its benefits, at least those that can only be measured financially. This, then, is the emergent global social contract: if we can manage to socialise (or even relieve) the costs accumulated in order to unlock the productive potential of billions of underserved and underemployed people, we will also collectively share in the wealth of a much richer global society. There is no formal consensus about what kind of global society we want, even as we are accelerating the construction of it. We should embrace and shape the journey.
Connectivity has also sparked a cognitive revolution by which we come to appreciate globality as a new baseline condition: there is a global dimension to everything. Neither Western nor Eastern ideas dominate, but wisdom flows in both directions, between Western tunnel vision and Eastern holism, between humanism and scientific materialism, between democracy and technocracy. Daniel Bell, a Canadian political theorist at Tsinghua University, argues that harmony is a viable bridge concept between East and West because in Confucian thought, harmony seeks peaceful order but also respect for diversity in social relationships. It is not premised on uniformity as commonly portrayed. Choosing a seemingly ‘Eastern’ concept such as harmony to drive new metrics would hardly privilege Asia: it is small Western countries such as Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, and New Zealand that rank highest on the Harmony Index. This emergent global culture deepens as the two global languages – English and code – further connect the world through software and real-time communications.